ICOM 2021 Working Internationally Conference Day 3: The Future of Museums

Each year ICOM UK organises a one-day Working Internationally Conference. This year, ICOM are hosting a three-day online event. Each day will focus on a major global issue.

The ITP team will be sharing daily blogs to round-up each day of the conference.  We hope to share some useful and insightful information we learnt at the conference, along with any resources.

The third and final day of ICOM UK’s virtual conference is all about The Future of Museums: where are we now, and where do go from here? Thank you very much to ICOM UK for hosting three days of fascinating discussions.

See our blog posts from the conference so far by clicking the links below:
Day 1: Social Justice
Day 2: Museums and Sustainability

The day began with a look a museum definitions from an international perspective. Attendees learn more from our international colleagues about what the ICOM museum definition means to them in their work and their priorities for the future.

We were very excited to see 2 ITP fellows kindly make video contributions to this segment of the conference! Well done to two of our senior fellows for their participation: Shambwaditya Ghosh (India, ITP Senior Fellow 2015) and Hayk Mkrtchyan (Armenia, ITP Senior Fellow 2017)!

In Conversation: The Future of Museums

With Tonya Nelson, Arts Council England’s London Area Director (ICOM UK Chair) and Skinder Hundal, Director of Arts, British Council


In this session Tonya and Skinder Hundal shared their experiences of the past year and looked to the future.

Skinder talked about how the British Council is currently asking a lot of questions about its purpose and role.

The British Council’s mission:
‘The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We do this by making a positive contribution to the UK and the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust’.

He acknowledged that one of the most important aims of the British Council is building trust – in countries, regions, within business, in communities and with individuals.  This has become more important in these times of emergency and crisis.  Key to this is collaboration and partnership to ensure they get the most from the resources available.  This will also be essential to museums moving forward, to ensure they remain open and committed, optimistic and bold.

Skinder talking about how the British Council, who are moving towards a more ‘collaborative partnership investment’ role rather than simply being known as a funder, how they want to be seen as a collaborative partner, an instigator and receiver of ideas.  As examples he shared the following projects:

The Digital Collaboration Fund
The Digital Collaboration Fund aims to address this challenge. Through a series of grants, we are supporting organisations to devise new virtual ways of working internationally, in turn creating a climate-friendly approach to international collaboration and artistic exchange.

And COP26
The British Council is working with partners worldwide to support the success and legacy of COP26 by creating opportunities for cooperation, dialogue and action in arts, education and science that address the shared challenges of climate change.

Skindar noted that a lot of people do not understand the British Council and a big challenge is getting the museum sector to understand how they can work together.  To know that the BC is open and committed to collaboration and that can be mutually beneficial.  The future is about the deeper relationships we need to have within the world we are in right now in the light of the health pandemic, Black Lives Matter, issues around poverty, inequality and the climate crisis.

Skinder spoke about the British Council delivery in the arts which he described as a ‘trinity in a six-pack’.  The trinity – three key areas – cultural exchange, creative economies and art responding to global issues.  Within that ‘trinity’ there are six strands of engagement which supports audiences and artists, culture professionals, spotlights on heightened programs and cultural activities.  Leadership will be very important to this because it is the leaders who will make the difference and accelerate the change we need to see.  He also spoke about creating a collaboration of communities that are conscious and creative at the same time – which he called the ‘four C’s’ – and how at the BC they are introducing an anti-race action plan to sit at the centre of the idea of equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Tonya Nelson spoke about the Arts Council strategy Let’s Createhttps://www.artscouncil.org.uk/letscreate – and how the title of the policy reflects the change in thinking about how the public engage with the arts.  They want to get everyone thinking about being involved with creativity which isn’t just about ‘consuming art’ but about being part of it and part of creating it.

Research has shown that museums weren’t as diverse as they could be, and Arts Council wanted to address that.  Let’s Create aims to address that by encouraging institutions to think about diversifying their staff and being relevant in terms of the content they are provide to audiences.  COVID has potentially helped with that, it’s made people think “we can shift much faster than we thought before COVID” and at Arts Council they want to capture that enthusiasm and start to fund it.

Tonya was asked for her reflections about decolonisation within Arts Council, ICOM and the museum sector.  She looked back to an online webinar held in January 2021 and co-supported by British Council and the Museum Association.  The speakers – from South Africa, New Zealand and the UK – talked about the future of decolonisation.  They looked at how the root of decolonisation within the museum context has been about restitution of objects but does this have to be a wider discussion? What information do we use?  What stories do we tell in our museums?  How does that connect globally?  We have to think about building long term relationships that are equal so that the decolonisation process becomes a platform for collaboration, relationship-building and empathy-building. 

Both Tonya and Skinder also talked about digital – the new digital skill sets we need to have and interesting digital projects. Tonya asked a really interesting question about whether museums are ’simply guardians of the past or are they now architects of the future? 

British Library are discovering how the increasingly digital world could change the future of collections through their project Imaginary Cities.

University of Nottingham are embarking on a project called Trustworthy Autonomous Systems with the research allowing academic scientists to work with wider sectors like health and the arts to come together to think about how you design artificial intelligence in a way that unlocks a new reality.

The Forever Project looks to bring the past into the present in a very considered way.

Finally, the two panellists talked about the future of international working.  Tonya spoke about how the Arts Council has been very focussed on touring – both exhibitions and performances – and have provided funding for organisations to tour their work overseas.  Now they are thinking about what funding can be provided to build relationships internationally which, both acknowledged, sat comfortably alongside the mission of the British Council and that a ‘cross-collaborative’ map was emerging.

The session closed with a positive and inspiring thought on how the global challenges will continue to be really complex, but we all want peace, prosperity, a healthy world and a wise world where creativity plays a vital role. 

Live from Panama

Ana Elizabeth Gonzalez, Director, Panama Canal Museum.
Edmund Connolly, ICOM UK committee member and Partnerships Manager at Google Arts & Culture UK.

Edmund Connolly live chatted with Director of the Panama Canal Museum, Ana Gonzalez in todays ‘Live From’ session, discussing the incredible work Ana is leading in her new role, plans and ambitions for the future of the Museum, some specifics of their digital learning programmes and how they’re ensuring that their gallery curation is diverse.

A video was then shown, featuring Ana at the museum – the Panama Canal Museum is located in Panama City, founded in 1997. The Museum is devoted to the history of the various stages involved in the construction of the canal up until the eventual takeover of the United States. It tells the story of the building of the canal in the 19th century which was successfully completed in 1914. The collection and exhibition spaces showcase a range of artefacts that tell the history of a country that became a melting pot of cultures and this museum narrates the history of a small country with a global impact, on a route that changed the world.

The video shows the second floor of the Museum where some of the permanent exhibition spaces are being renovated. Ana states that since opening, their exhibitions have told the story of the American canal from a very narrow perspective and from solely the American perspective whilst ignoring the voices of people from 97 countries that came to this tiny part of Latin America and created a multicultural hub. People coming from the West Indies, China, the Philippines, India, and so many other countries were discriminated against and not treated as equal. The purpose of this renovation is to ensure that the Museum extends the narratives that they currently use in exhibitions.

Ana goes on to talk about the racially coded payroll for workers employed by the US builders of the Panama Canal with US employees paid more than laborers who generally came from the West Indies. Not only were the payrolls completely different for similar work, socio economic aspects such as housing, recreation, transportation and health services were also discriminatory. Ana describes how the Museum now wants to exhibit the daily lives of all of these people who came from so many different countries, finding their way in a new territory; many voices will be heard, including those of the unsung heroes and the collection will help tell their story.

The museum is also developing a virtual experience, with a much more digital presence in their exhibition spaces, enabling audiences to become more engaged and become participants of the history they’re learning. This new offering, ‘seeks to break down barriers, stay tuned with new dynamics and actively listen to people’s voices in a much more inclusive way in order to generate connections, learning and closeness. We will use this opportunity to inform the public of the many aspects of segregation and racism that permeated from the 19th century onwards.’

The Collection

Following the video, Edmund live chatted with Ana, asking how the collection was founded and she tells him that as a relatively young museum, she has watched the collection grow and most of it came through donations. At the beginning, they started from scratch with some support from institutions and government but most of the collection was donated and is quite contemporary. Ana wants to help highlight that they have been a transit route since the creation of the country and even before and so are a point of strategic cultural contact through the centuries – a story they aim to tell through their exhibitions. At the moment they are actively collecting and trying to purchase and acquire pieces that showcase a more diverse narrative. Ana says this is a challenge because most of the collection has a very narrow perspective and so to expand the narrative, they have been looking at research, documents, photographs and objects that can help tell these stories. The Museum also reached out for international collaboration and cooperation locally, with the West Indian Museum of Panama who has been loaning and donating some pieces and photographs to use.

Edmund adds that it is interesting that the Museum is doing contemporary collecting for a historic narrative. They currently have a collection of around 30,000 artefacts and photographs and wish to seek out new ways of collecting and acquiring. At only 23 years old and at the beginning of the Museum’s life, they are very keen on creating a collection but now have a stricter policy of how they collect and what they take on. Ana says that studying the existing collection and really looking at the gaps there, will really allow them to pursue different paths in terms of what they seek to be in the future.

Joining last year as director, Ana explains that plans for a renovation of the second floor of the permanent exhibition spaces had been going on for a little while – this exhibition space in particular hadn’t been renewed in 20 years, so it is a major project. This space will focus on what was happening in the life inside the canals which was American territory in the Republic of Panama from 1903 onwards, and aims to show diverse perspectives. Other focus of the exhibits begin with pre-colonial times and show archaeological artifacts all the way to present day. Emphasis on how these narratives are not unilateral is important and will expand upon the fact that that people from 97 countries came to build the canal, how they lived and the experiences they had. Ana says that it is not a conversation that’s really been had in the country, and it is something that they really want to explore and research more about and be able to offer people.

Digital Tech

Ana is asked if digital technology will be a permanent feature of the gallery – ‘Absolutely, we’re quite excited because we really want to engage the public in the history they’re learning about, and we think digital, as this pandemic has showed us, has been a wonderful tool in order to engage different people. We strongly believe that digital programmes should be a distinct branch of curatorial practice. It’s fantastic, the way you can reach people from all over the world who may not have been able to come to Panama or see our museum and experience what we have to offer, but also I think we live in a very technological world and especially young people feel really engaged with interaction, rather than just being told something or reading it from a wall, so we wanted to use technology as a great tool to engage them.’

Ana says that they feel people don’t really download apps anymore onto their phone – their digital offering is a platform that uses a QR code at the beginning of the new exhibition space, allowing you to register as if you were going to be a worker on the canal. It allocates a contract to you and they are trying to give the audience a profile, going back in time and engage them in what life was actually like as a worker on the canal. You can also review information when you get back home from your phone and so it is interactive as well as a ‘takeaway’.

Learning programmes

Ana feels this area is vital in a museum, particularly to give context in the education system locally. Before the pandemic there was an active programme in the museum called The Children Guides; once a year, schoolchildren come and learn the script to guide the public which really encourages them to get involved and soak up the history that they’re talking about. Every year they have seen an increase in parents calling months in advance, wanting their children to get involved, mentioning that al their friends and neighbours also want their kids to get involved – it’s been a real success! Ana feels this shows how such a fun learning space with tailored content really helps the children to comprehend what the Museum is talking about. They also have an outreach program to bring in schools that are from less privileged areas and this year, they’re developing a digital space for tours because of COVID. In summary, Ana believes that educational learning programmes are vital in museums, because that is where change happens.